Considering the Wangert family is being watched by the C.I.A. and one of their closest friends is a spy, they are still a relatively normal family.
The Wangerts are the focus of Ian Woollen’s novel, Uncle Anton’s Atomic Bomb. It’s not your usual family drama. It opens on a train to Indianapolis in 1951. Childhood friends Wade and Mary are returning home after their college graduations. They talk about Chekhov, feel a romantic twinge, and agree to exchange letters. Wade plans to stay in Indianapolis and will be taking over the family business, but Mary is off to Moscow to work for the U.S. State Department.
Several months later, an unexpected pregnancy and a poisoned poodle have Wade rushing to Moscow. The two marry and then escape to Great Tusk, Maine, to have the child, hold hands, and get to know each other.
These first five chapters have enough action for an entire novel, but obviously they are only a small part of the story. The book opens with a great deal of intrigue and mystery, yet it quickly settles into a different kind of story. Mary and Wade have two more children, and Mary becomes a stay-at-home mom while Wade (albeit reluctantly) returns to the family business.
Despite a somewhat dubious beginning—two people, almost strangers, one pregnant by another man—this marriage thrives and watching it unfold is one of the most pleasurable aspects of the story. There are rough points, to be sure—at one point Wade circles a date on the calendar and informs Mary he won’t speak to her until then—but there’s also an honest affection, and the marriage seems to embody the idea that you don’t jump ship just because things aren’t going perfectly.
After the drama of the opening chapters fades, the plot returns to the more every day (dealing with in-laws, childhood traumas, awkward friendships, financial issues, and death). The characters and settings become more detailed, and history becomes a large part of the story.
Woollen includes a lot of history—from larger events many are probably already aware of to the more trivial Jeopardy question kind of history. For example, learning when the term jock became popular: “In 1972 the slang use of the word ‘jock’ for ‘athlete’ was still not yet common. Duncan thought he was being insulted. He glances up and says, ‘What?’” A fight quickly ensues.
We also see bomb drills, the founding of the Indiana Pacers, Wade’s family business enter the computer age, and the growing awareness of AIDS. Anthony, Mary’s first child, and his partner, both investigative reporters, note “More and more they both overheard mention of a deadly pneumonia that seemed to be affecting gay men.”
A double-agent spy-world Cold War element does continue through the story, however. The passages devoted to He Who Remains Classified, henceforth HWRC, is Anthony’s biological father, and he keeps tabs on Mary and the entire Wangert clan over the course of the novel (which is several decades). Readers see his love/hate relationship with Mary (which, for most of the book, takes place completely in his mind), his concern over Anthony’s sexual preferences, and his often extreme political ideologies. But even HWRC has his human moments, moments when he does the right thing. And many of his thoughts are simply politically incorrect enough to be “I can’t believe he just said that” kind of humorous.
There’s also a wonderful comparative element in the story, primarily between the different generations. Consider the opening—addressed to the “darling” readers—“Trust that your evening libation tastes pretty much the same in 1951 as it does today. And if you are a member of gen-whatever for whom the year 1951 has no reference point, imagine a period in American life when the term ‘unwed mother’ had a nasty sting.” A few pages later, it’s about dress: “Now we all dress down in young person clothes. Back then, people dressed up in old person clothes, particularly to travel.” Toward the end of the book, the comparisons move to the drugs of choice in the ‘70s and ‘80s: “As pot gave way to cocaine as the ‘80s drug of choice, people talked differently at parities. Less inward musings and more outward ranting. Parties became marathons of vociferousness.”
Uncle Anton’s Atomic Bomb is a book to be read somewhat slowly (or read it twice). Woollen includes a lot of small details, little musings, quick humorous bites that add so much but require careful reading. And don’t forget to check out the cover art. On the front—a ‘50s living room complete with floral wallpaper, a television set in a wood case with dials (to change the channels), and a martini shaker and glass. On the back—a mushroom cloud from an atomic explosion.
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